Monday, December 20, 2010

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #3 - Cat People

Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) / Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Robert Wise)

Here on one mid-priced DVD, we have two very different films bearing the same tawdry kinds of titles that belie the subtlety and craft that went into the films themselves. First off, there’s Cat People, one of the great horror films of the 1940’s. Director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton (who was responsible for a terrific run of films at RKO studios at the time) worked together with a minimal budget to create a film long on atmosphere and suggestion, knowing that a few well placed sound effects, some spare lighting, and good performances from their actors were worth ten times more than the shock of showing a big budgeted monster effect that then took

all the imagination out of the equation. In the film, Simone Simon plays Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian-born woman living in New York, who begins to suspect that meeting her new husband Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) will awaken her familial curse and turn her into a murderous panther. Whether this curse exists or is the work of her emotional state and suppressed sexuality coming to the fore is a question left to the viewer as Tourneur and Lewton brilliantly and eerily suggest both possibilities – she may be a dangerous shape-shifter or an emotionally disturbed young woman. When Oliverturns to a co-worker for companionship that his wife is unable to provide, is he about to unleash the emotions of a jealous wife, or a deadly feline wreaking vengeance? Find out, in Cat People!
Two years later, Lewton returned to the success of his Cat People with the sorely mis-titled Curse of the Cat People. For this film he enlisted the aid of director Robert Wise, a journeyman Hollywood director able to take on projects as diverse as this film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just to name a few of his 40+ director credits. Lewton and Wise did not have a psycho-sexual thriller in mind this time though, instead this film, which takes place six years after the original, focuses on shy, withdrawn Amy Reed, the daughter of the original film’s Oliver Reed (a role briefly reprised here by Kent Smith). Amy talks to herself and to her imaginary friend rather than engaging with playmates her own age. Could she be the victim of a curse as well? Or is she simply a child living in her imagination, in need of attention and help being drawn out of her fantasy world? The film’s evocation of the child’s interior life – which unduly concerns her parents – is miraculous; it’s one of the few children’s fantasy films that feels like it really understands the child inside and out, rather than portraying childhood in the cloyingly sentimental glow of adult reminiscence. Go in expecting more dangerous panther-women and you’ll undoubtedly be disappointed. But if you’re prepared to set aside your expectations of the spooky horror of Cat People and instead to experience one of the great fantasy films about childhood, you’re in for an absolutely classic double feature.

- Patrick

1 comment:

Gregory D. Rothbard said...

Thanks for the wonderful review... I appreciated it and added Cat People to my Netflix Que because of it... I think movies today show too much... our imagination can fill in a lot if only we are allowed to think...